No chink in mesmeric Spain's armour
The champions have adapted an uber-skillful game plan to embrace tactics based on total control, writes SID LOWE
LATE ON Saturday night, in the basement of the Donbass Arena where Spain had just beaten France 2-0 to reach the semi-final against Portugal, a member of Vicente del Bosque’s coaching staff puffed out his cheeks. “How,” he said, “are we going to stop Cristiano Ronaldo . . . with a lasso?”
Spain could try that. Or they could try what they did last time. And the time before that. After all, it is working rather well. Italy, Russia, Germany, Portugal, Paraguay, Germany again, the Netherlands, France: all of them tried and all of them failed. Spain have now gone eight consecutive knock-out games across three competitions without conceding a goal. How will Spain try to stop Ronaldo? The way they stopped him before; the way they stop everyone.
“Ronaldo is one of the world’s best and has incredible qualities,” said Gerard Piqué, who has faced the Portuguese 14 times, winning nine and losing just two. “But it’s not an individual duel; it’s collective . . . If we have the ball, he’ll participate less and cause us fewer problems.”
And there, in a nutshell, it is. Spain have kept more clean sheets and conceded fewer than anyone at Euro 2012. Just as they did in South Africa 2010 and at Euro 2008. “We have,” said del Bosque, “based our efficiency on good defensive order. We’ve been very solid.”
The thing is, it is defence but not as we know it. There are few heroic last-ditch tackles for one simple reason: there is rarely a need for heroic last-ditch tackles. There is no digging trenches and resisting the onslaught. There is no onslaught. Spain have challenged the cliches, the typical application of words like pragmatism, defensiveness and competitiveness.
Their game can be summed up in a word: control. Tiki-taka always had a defensive facet. Now, conditioned by the prize and the opponents that stand before them, by their own evolution, that is more apparent than ever. Now it has emerged in another guise: the debate over Spain being “boring”.
Spain have completed more passes than anyone else for the third consecutive tournament. Their tournament high, 654, is 163 more than Germany’s best. In the first half against France, they made 316 passes – more than Portugal had achieved in two entire games. In total, the difference between the two teams is 3,211 against 1,754.
The argument is inevitable: sure, but how many of those passes were relevant? The answer is simple: all of them. Spain do everything through the ball, including rest and defend, including wearing down the opposition. It is not a coincidence they score so many late goals. Spain’s football does not only have an aesthetic quality, it has an anaesthetic quality too. The old bullfighting parallel: Spain weaken the opposition, producing passes, ready for the kill, dulling their senses. “They had the ball, we just ran and ran,” said France striker Karim Benzema.
Put simply, if Spain have the ball the opposition can’t score. And Spain almost always have the ball. That best explains why Spain have faced fewer shots than anyone, just 28. The same was true in 2010 and 2008. If they do lose the ball, opponents are less equipped to take advantage too.
After the World Cup semi-final, Germany’s Miroslav Klose said: “When we eventually did get it we were so exhausted from chasing that we couldn’t do anything with it.” That night, Spain produced 160 more passes; Germany ran 1.2 more miles.
Spain’s defensive control has become more pronounced. Opta statistics reveal 68.2 per cent of possession here, 65.2 per cent in 2010 and 56.6 per cent in 2008. The introduction of two deep midfielders, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, occupying the space once filled by Marcos Senna alone, is one reason. It is also a defensive midfielder more than Barcelona, underlining that del Bosque’s greatest concern is control.
Against France, Spain dominated possession again. But their back four were impressive and they were more defensive in the traditional sense. Xavi explains: “It was hot, we were tired and we played 10-15 metres deeper. If we didn’t play extraordinarily well, we did compete and were serious.”
That Xavi had not especially enjoyed the game was suggested by his next remark: “Needs must.”
The other reason for the shift is the opponents – a key consideration in the Spain-are-boring debate. There may never have been a team whose superiority was so assimilated by everyone. Spain are invariably confronted by parked buses and teams scared of opening up. That’s the true measure of how good they are. Yet if that tactic has blunted Spain’s attacking, it has facilitated their defending.
Laurent Blanc criticised England’s defensiveness but did the same against Spain, using two right backs. It did not work; it never does. If the analysis is reduced to results, there’s only one conclusion. Spain have won 16 of 17 competitive games, drawing the other against Italy. They are World and European champions. Teams may succeed in reducing Spain’s chances but they reduce their own; Spain’s ability to protect through possession becomes greater. The only team not to lose to them, the only team to score, were the only team that pushed high, attacked them and competed for possession. Italy.
“I don’t think France will just play deep,” said del Bosque before the quarter-final, before adding: “But I hope so.”
Before the tournament he foresaw what lay ahead: “We play against very deep teams and we can’t change that. What we have to do is find a way to attack them, hurt them. But that has its good side too: they attack us less.”